As a guiding force behind the omnivorous PRISM Quartet, Matthew Levy has been a musical midwife: helping to birth a large and eclectic repertoire of works built around the endlessly versatile sound of the saxophone quartet. But while championing so many of his colleagues, from the internationally renowned to the young and emergent, Levy has done a great disservice to a contemporary American composer with a distinctive voice: namely, Matthew Levy.
People’s Emergency Center is a chance for PRISM to finally focus on Levy’s own music, which draws freely—and often surprisingly—from classical, jazz, world, and rock traditions. The album begins with a particularly instructive example. Under the Sun is a three-part suite scored for piano (the redoubtable Jason Moran), saxophone choir, percussion, and, in its third and final movement, the Indian sitar. In the opening movement, “Awakening,” a keyboard/percussion groove serves as the engine driving the rustle and hubbub of a… what? Are those birds taking flight and singing? Or is it the sound of the urban jungle yawning and stretching to life? Either way, the winds are overdubbed to form choirs of Philip Glass-style intensity, streaked through with jagged flashes of piano. With its striking collision of American Minimalism, the rhythms of Latin and African music, and the improvisation of jazz, “Awakening” is a major statement of intent at the start of the album.
The album includes three works written just for PRISM, including “Lyric.” Levy’s voracious musical appetite apparently includes the French “Spectralists,” composers like Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, who create deeply-hued textures by analyzing the component parts of each sound and making those parts explicit, either by “splitting” the sound so that one or more of its overtones are audible, or reinforcing those harmonic components with other instruments. Working with this so-called “harmonic series” quickly moves the music out of standard Western tuning, and there are moments in “Lyric” that are both beautiful and unsettling—take, for example, the almost metallic ringing sound of the sax choir that ends the piece, a sign of mourning for the composer’s mother, in whose memory the work was composed.
The recording also features four works, including Serial Mood, in which PRISM is joined by an all-star line-up of jazz artists. Serial Mood is a punning title: here, Levy manages to combine the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg, whose early 20th century experiments set music free of the constraints of tonality, with the strongly tone-centered modes of classical Greek music. The first part, “Reflection,” features Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose alto solo is full of movement and quicksilver changes of tone color, over a backdrop of softly roiling saxes and some rather insistent bass and drums, courtesy of Jay Anderson and Bill Stewart. The second half, “Refraction,” rides on a fierce post-bop groove, but the texture clears out in the middle to allow notable solos by Ben Monder, Tim Ries, and Matthew Levy himself.